“Whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest of gales, this tree is ever found irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque and offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other conifer I know of.”
The following excerpt is from my book Conifer Country. I was inspired to publish it here after a recent trip with my son to visit and measure the Klamath Mountain champion foxtail pine. After this trip, the foxtail pine is his favorite tree species too 🙂
California’s endemic foxtail pines have established two esoteric populations abscinded by nearly 500 miles of rolling mountains and deep valleys. The species was first described by John Jeffrey near Mount Shasta in 1852 , which was most likely a population near Mount Eddy or in the Scott Mountains. Later, this species was discovered in the high elevations (9,000’-12,000’) of the southern Sierra Nevada. The ecological context of Klamath foxtail pines in the Klamath Mountains differs drastically from that in the Sierra Nevada due to the divergence of these populations in the mid-Pleistocene. Though separated over one million years ago, both subspecies exhibit a radiance and individuality for which I honor them as my favorite conifer.
With separation in space and time, divergence—including cone orientation, seed character, crown form, foliage, and even chemistry—has occurred between the two subspecies. Another reason for these variations are genetic bottlenecks that have been promulgated by spatially restricted microsite adaptations, particularly in the Klamath Mountains . Northern foxtail pines (var. balfouriana) are isolated on sky islands—local mountain tops and ridgelines—from 6,500’ to 9,000’ in the eastern half of the Klamath Mountains. By my count there are 16 isolated sub-populations each consisting of one to several isolated mountain-top populations, except in the Trinity Alps where they are locally common in the more contiguous high elevations. On these sites, proper geologic, topographic, and climatic conditions have offered synergistic alliances with shade-tolerant and faster-growing firs and hemlocks.
The slow movement of water through a fen builds, over long periods of time, to the formation of peatlands. The formation of peatlands requires a combination of processes that most commonly occur in flat areas in both tropical and boreal regions. Because of variable topography, geology, and even water chemistry in the mountains, peatlands are generally rare.
In temperate mountains, rare peatlands form over mellennia if perennial soil saturation, low mineral soil deposition, erosion rates, and net storage of soil carbon resulting from plant productivity complement each other perfectly. In arctic and alpine environments, the formation of peat is often associated with peat moss (Sphagnum spp.). In the temperate regions peatlands are usually dominated and formed by sedges (Carex spp.).
I have been fascinated for a long time with the conifers of the Klamath Mountains. While there are many places across the region that have a high density of conifer species, one of the hotspots is in the Russian Wilderness in an area known as the Miracle Mile. It has a long, storied history of discovery, research, conservation, and recreation.
If you visit, tread lightly and leave no trace. Day hiking is the best way to see it and preserve the unique natural features of the area. What follows is a summary of my presentation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I learned about this project in 2014 and have been following it closely ever since. In late April, 2020 my friends Justin Garwood, Ken Lindke, and Mike Van Hattem (with other co-authors) published the first definitive paper on glaciers in the Klamath Mountains. While the news is bleak, their diligent research documents the changes in the Klamath for hundreds of years through the eyes of the highest peaks and watersheds in the range. Please enjoy the summary that follows.
BLURB FROM THE TALK: Humboldt County educator, author, and ecologist Michael Kauffmann has been tracking the status and distribution of Klamath Mountain conifers for over 15 years and his book, Conifer Country, if the definitive field guide to the region. Michael will take us from mountain summits to coastal river valleys and provide updates on the status and distribution of many of these charismatic conifers based on field work in the summer of 2019 with the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team. He will also share photos and stories about exciting plants from the region.
Where Highway 101 hugs the Pacific Coast in Humboldt County, north through Del Norte County, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are loosing needles at an alarming rate. This phenomenon, caused by the non-native green spruce aphid (Elatobium abietinum), grew into a noticeable problem in winter 2019-2020. The aphid thrives during winters with warmer than normal temperatures. Last year’s defoliation was especially severe in Oregon and the aphids continues to move south. Sitka spruce decline in California is in its early stages.
Exploring the remnant old-growth of the Humboldt County Headwaters
In late 1985, a family company in Humboldt County was over taken by a large corporation from Texas. Within a few months, the profit-driven Maxxam Corporation submitted (under the name Pacific Lumber) a furtive timber harvest plan with a rush order to log some of the last, largest swaths of remaining old-growth redwoods in the world. Thankfully, a small group of concerned environmentalists were watching. Leading the guard was Greg King who, along with others, organized and Headwaters Forest Campaign which soon became the largest forest protection civil disobedience demonstration in America’s history.
From Alaska south to Oregon western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is the signature tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest. It has mythic importance to native people, as entire civilizations were sustained, in large part, by this species. Natives of the Pacific Northwest regarded the species as a “Long Life Maker” (Stewart 1984) because they used it for canoes, paddles, houses, roofs, clothes, bedding, rope, cooking, and even medicine. Few giant trees were actually felled before the arrival of Europeans because old snags were usable for many years after death. Highly resistant to rot, the snags or parts of live trees would be harvested instead of the entire live tree. After building a dugout canoe from a tree, Lewis and Clark named it “arbor vitae,” Latin for “tree of life” (Arno 2007).
In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I completed a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. This post is about the populations in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.
In 2016 I embarked on a mapping and inventory project for yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California. At the time, I called yellow-cedar California’s rarest conifer. In 2019, new discoveries on the north slopes of Copper Butte and Preston Peak brought the total hectares of yellow-cedar in California to ~21 hectares. With this new data, and that collected in this project, we now know Abies amabilis is California’s rarest conifer*! See table below for stand data summary.
*This excludes the neoendemic California cypresses.
I first visited this area in 2004 when my friend Jay and I attempted an ambitious loop starting from the Wooley Creek Trailhead, to the headwaters at Wooley Lake, back to Hancock Lake, and then laboring along the non-existent trail on Steinacher Ridge back to our car. This was the first major hike I took in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and my encounter with Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) around the Diamond Lake – English Peak region inspired the writing of my first book, Conifer Country.
Exploring upper Copper and Indian creeks for yellow-cedar
I have been mapping and inventorying yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California for the past four years. This process could have been much more efficient if it wasn’t for the 2018 Eclipse Complex and the 2019 Natchez Fire (more below) that virtually closed the Siskiyou Wilderness for the past two summers.
Successful surveys before this year have doubled the previously known area of this rare conifer from approximately 5 hectares in 2015 to 11 hectares by 2018. One of the largest gaps in surveys was within upper Indian and Copper creeks in the Klamath River watershed. I predicted this is where the largest stands of the species would be–little did I know how large an area I would find.
In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I began a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. Later this summer I will visit the other population in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.
Pacific silver fir in California can easily be overlooked because of its similarity to white fir (Abies concolor). Upon close inspection (and by going to specific locations) the differences will become apparent. Silver fir is identifiable in the hand because it has the most distinct and exuberant stomatal bloom of any regional tree. Like grand fir (and regionally white fir) the tips of the needles are notched. The needles splay from the branch on only one side often in a perfect arrays, fanning out in a semi-circular manner. The needles occasionally twist in this array, thus offering distinct silver flashes of the stomatal bloom on the undersides—a brilliant contrast to the dark-green upper surfaces. This is also what sets it apart from white fir, with a duller stomatal bloom. As with other Abies, the smell of crushed needles emits a resinous “pine scent.” The bark is distinct, forming long, narrow, rectangular blocking patterns that seem to melt off the trunks in silvery chunks with subtle reddish hues in the furrows. At a distance, larger trees are gradually tapered, similar to Shasta fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis). It is an inimitable and rare experience to spend time with this beauty in the Klamath Mountains
Many years back I discovered that there were little known biodiversity hotspots that had been described by a handful of ecologists. These places had been designated as Research Natural Areas for the primary purposes of maintaining biological diversity, providing baseline ecological information, and encouraging research and university natural-history education. These places are all relatively pristine and sometimes close to roads in non-wilderness areas.
It was in this way that I first learned about the Redwood Experimental Forest that also contains the Yurok RNA. But I had never visited this place despite the fact it has been on my list since the early 2000s. That all changed in June 2019.
Big Trees of the Freshwater Creek Drainage, Humboldt County
Old-growth forests are forests that have developed over long periods of time, without experiencing severe, stand-replacing disturbance—a fire, windstorm, or logging. Within the redwood forest belt, of the estimated 1.6 million acres of redwood forest remaining, only 7% is old growth. The remaining 93% is considered some level of second growth. Around Humboldt Bay where we live that number is approaching 99%. The old-growth trees that do remain are often mixed within the second growth forests. Most often, an old tree was left behind by loggers because of imperfections like broken tops or less than optimal heartwood. This post explores some of the residual old growth in my neighborhood.
Castle Crags State Park is within the Klamath Mountains geomorphic province. The eastern Klamath Mountains are built from the oldest rock in the range with the newest to the west. This is due to the continued accretions of oceanic crust added on to the western edge of North American continent. Rocks surrounding Castle Crags are mostly of the Ordovician-aged (443–490 million year old) Trinity ultramafic sheet.
In 1883, August W. Eichler, the prominent plant taxonomist of the day, divided the plant kingdom into two groups: Cryptogams and Phanerogams. Cryptogamae are seedless and have inconspicuous reproductive structures while Phanerogamae produce seeds and have visible reproductive structures (like flowers and cones). Cryptogamae means hidden reproduction, referring to the fact that no seed is produced. Instead reproduction occurs by spores. Eichler only classified plants as cryptogams but the definition has since expanded to include, among others, mushrooms and blue-green algae. This collective group, while taxonomically incoherent because it includes species from more than one Kingdom, represents the most ancient lineages of land-dwelling species on Earth.
For the better part of July I was contracted by the Forest Service Region 5, in a partnership with the CNPS Vegetation Program, to follow up with our 2013 work mapping and monitoring whitebark pine in the north state. I visited numerous sites where I predicted Pinus albicaulis might occur to conduct surveys and improve our state-wide range map for the species. Overall, the health of the species in northern California is in slow decline due to a variety of factors including mountain pine beetle, white pine blister rust, global climate change, and recent high intensity fires. In an earlier post, I shared some highlights from the Modoc National Forest, this post shares images and highlights from Klamath National Forest whitebark pine work.
On a recent trip into the Marble Mountain Wilderness to map and monitor whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) on the Klamath National Forest, I found myself near Isinglass Lake. I had read that the only population of great sundew (Drosera anglica) in the Klamath Mountains was documented here in 1972. I knew there was a Klamath Mountain peat bog to be found.